Helping fake news Buzz off

A storm brewed in the US media, and around the world, this week as CNN reported that President Obama and President-Elect Trump were being briefed on top secret intelligence claims that Russia had compromising information relating to Trump.  This information was claimed to be private and personal, and just a few hours after CNN reported this, BuzzFeed published a dossier including several sensational claims about Trump, prostitutes and a hotel room in Moscow.

We now know that the dossier has not been verified, though the British MI6 agent that was the source of the information has been claimed to be highly credible and that the CIA and FBI have both investigated the claims and have not been drawn themselves on any conclusions.  We also know now that President-Elect Trump’s team have viciously denied the dossier’s credibility and the man himself has slammed both CNN and BuzzFeed as “fake news” and a “failing pile of garbage” respectively.

Aside from the rather brutal, embarrassing and, if true, potentially catastrophically damaging claims about Trump, what this week’s events show is a huge divide between the way modern media channels, such as BuzzFeed, conduct themselves compared with traditional news outlets, like CNN.

There was a great debate this morning on CNN between their own Brian Stelter and BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, where both outlined the attitudes and arguments to vindicate their own organisations’, and types of news outlets more generally, approach to reporting news like the Trump dossier.

What it boiled down to was BuzzFeed’s approach was to question “why shouldn’t we share this with our readers”, compared with “why should we share this with our readers” for CNN.  On this point, I think I agree with BuzzFeed – the burden of assigning merit to a story should belong with the reader, not the organisation.  What’s important to one person’s view of public life might not be the same for someone else, so reporting whatever’s happening in the news is the way to go.

However, it was interesting that Ben Smith said BuzzFeed’s duty was to be as “fast and accurate” as possible, before Brian Stilter interjected that it should be “accurate and fast”.  Stilter also hammered home the point that BuzzFeed’s lack of reporting along with the dossier, along with the admission that many parts of the dossier were admittedly false, mean that people were not given appropriate context to absorb the dossier and make the decision as to whether it was true or not.  Here my sympathies lie with CNN – as it’s up to news organisations to prove why something’s true and not be ambiguous in any way as to whether what they’re reporting is fact or allegation, something BuzzFeed didn’t do enough in this instance and where their hubris has hit them hardest this week.

I’m personally very torn between the two competing sides of this argument.  I think the claims made against Trump are potentially very damaging if true, and the fact they’ve been investigated by the highest levels of the US intelligence community suggests that they aren’t to be dismissed out of hand.  The relationship between Russia and Trump has already been a major development in the news in recent weeks and months, and the prospect of a Russian-influence US President coming to power in a matter of days is a terrifying prospect that should be challenged at any point.

However, BuzzFeed’s style of sensationalising the news and allowing for unverified and, to an extent, unsourced material to be published in the way it did wasn’t up to the highest standards needed to ensure public confidence.  Doing this cheapens what BuzzFeed are trying to do in moving away from clickbait journalism to serious investigative reporting, and damages the credibility of the organisation that already suffers from its beginnings as a less than reputable outlet.  This isn’t on the same level as deliberately creating fake stories and disseminating them online, but we’ve seen that the public cannot distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, so it’s up to responsible news organisations to be paragons of the truth – which BuzzFeed can’t claim to do perfectly after this week’s events

CNN’s approach to the Trump dossier, to report that damaging material was been discussed by the intelligence community and the President/President-Elect, was the right way to go about the story – and they have now been tarred with the same brush because of the way BuzzFeed hijacked the story.  This hurts the mainstream media, that the public do not trust nearly as much as they used to, and this only fuels the fire for those that agree with Trump’s warped assertions that news outlets with generations of experience and credibility are lying about him in order to undermine his upcoming Presidency.

Modern media has an incredible power, and the whole fake news phenomenon that has appeared over the last few years, grown incredible traction in the last few months, and could well influence more international elections in damaging ways, is proof that people can believe everything they see online.

Modern media is self-policing though, so it’s up to news outlets like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and (although not holding any hope on this) Breitbart to source and double-source their stories to prove they’re accurate.  We need the social media and search sites that allow these stories to proliferate through the web, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter to take responsibility for filtering the influence of outlets to match their authenticity.  This shouldn’t be done via censorship but by improving algorithms when recommending content to ensure that the content being served to people is clear in its intentions and is not designed to mislead a fragile public’s viewpoints.

Working to fight fake news is going to take a sea change in the way we consume content online, but because we’ve done that so often in the last 10 years, it’s not an overwhelmingly difficult challenge.

But step one has to be to follow the old idiom of putting your own house in order before criticising others.

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